color photograph of a natural landscape with a still lake in the foreground and two gently curving mountain slopes in the background. the colors are muted, with the sky and water light grey and the mountains tones of grey, blue, and brown
QUINAULT, WA - SEPTEMBER 12: The swimming area in front of Lake Quinault Lodge is viewed on Sept. 12, 2021, in Quinault, Washington. Traditional Chinook Indian Nation territory is about 60 miles south along the Pacific Coast. (Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)

The Chinook Indian Nation has spent decades petitioning the U.S. government for federal recognition, which Chinook leadership says is an essential first step for the nation to begin healing from centuries of genocidal policies. Moreover, without federal recognition, the Chinookan people remain unable to access a range of resources, services, and protections that could make a critical difference in their lives and the overall welfare of the nation.

That access was almost granted over two decades ago, when the U.S. government formally acknowledged the Chinook Indian Nation as a sovereign nation in 2001 at the end of the Clinton Administration. However, the Bush administration rescinded that recognition barely 18 months later in 2002, removing the legal framework that would have allowed the Chinook Indian Nation to exercise its full rights as a sovereign nation interacting with the U.S. government. The Department of the Interior justified the decision by claiming the Chinook had failed to “establish a substantially continuous tribal existence from treaty times until the present.”

“The idea that the non-Native U.S. government gets to determine and arbitrate a tribe’s status or legitimacy is the ultimate example of white supremacy,” Chinook leadership said through email. 

Today, the Chinook Indian Nation consists of five different bands: the Clatsop, Wahkiakum, Kathlamet, Willapa, and Lower Chinook, all of whom signed treaties in the 1850s that Congress never ratified. For Jessica Porter, a Chinook citizen and seventh-generation descendent of a signer on the 1851 treaties at Tansy Point, this struggle isn’t just about federal recognition, it’s about the Chinookan people’s right to “live the lives our ancestors fought so hard to preserve for us.”

“The fight against this grave injustice consumes so much of what I know and have experienced in my life,” Porter said. “When our ancestors signed that treaty, they were fighting to preserve our Chinookan way of life. That’s why federal recognition is so important to us.”

Federal policies pit Native nations against each other

Porter lives with her family along the banks of the Willapa River, part of unceded Chinook land in Washington state. When she looks out the window of her house, she can see the river, the house where her grandmother lived, and where her mother took her last labored breath. The ancestral lands of the Chinook stretch from southern Washington in Willapa Bay, to southern Oregon along the Pacific Coast near the mouth of the Columbia River. However, without federal recognition, the Chinook Indian Nation has no reservation. 

“Many of our families have remained in our ancestral lands despite the federal government’s failure to establish a reservation in accordance with our treaty,” Porter said. “Our life looks a little different from our ancestors because our longhouses where we lived together were burned down, and we were forcefully relocated from our villages several times. We will always be here no matter what the federal government does to deny us justice because this kind of permanence is our birthright.”

Because the U.S. government doesn’t recognize the Chinook as a sovereign nation, the land on which they reside isn’t legally considered their own. In 1856, the federal government negotiated the Quinault, Quileute, Queets, and Hoh into the Quinault Reservation, and the Chehalis, Chinook, and Cowlitz nations were negotiated into an expansion of the Quinault Reservation to 220,000 acres in 1873. In 1905, the government further divided the Quinault Reservation into 80-acre allotments assigned to individual people from those seven nations. As a result, individual Chinook citizens became majority landholders on the Quinault Reservation, further fueling a rivalry between the two nations that goes back 10,000 years, according to Chinook leaders. 

In fact, the Quinault have openly opposed Chinook federal recognition since the Chinook first sought federal recognition in the 1980s, fearing a loss of control over their reservation and diminished access to resources. After the Chinook were granted federal recognition in 2001, the Quinault Indian Nation appealed to the Department of Interior’s Board of Indian Appeals, which gave the new presidency the ammunition they needed to rescind the previous administration’s recognition of the Chinook. 

Tony Johnson, the Chinook Indian Nation chairman, said that being made to leave their ancestral lands would be cultural genocide and strip the Chinook of their identity as a people and nation. As it currently stands, without federal recognition, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act doesn’t apply to the Chinook people, meaning that the human remains of their ancestors aren’t required to be returned to their people and traditionally laid to rest. 

“We know a lot of tribal folks who have been forced to relocate who have lost connections [to their land and culture] that we have not lost—that is so valuable to us,” Johnson said. 

To allay some of their concerns, the Quinault Indian Nation requested an amendment to the Chinook Indian Nation’s constitution that would remove references to the Treaty of Olympia as a show of support for the Quinault reserved rights and lands associated with that specific treaty. Although the request would affect one of the oldest living tribal constitutions in the Pacific Northwest, the Chinook agreed to the amendment.

Government-to-government meetings have been held between the Quinault and the Chinook nations, where the Chinook have maintained that they have no intent to seek stewardship of any lands other than their own aboriginal territory. Johnson believes that the Quinault Indian Nation has become more supportive of Chinook recognition through these meetings. 

“We heard loud and clear from every councilmember from Quinault that they want to support our legislation,” Johnson said. “They were able to review it, and I think across the board we heard from everybody that they want to end the harm that’s happening to the Chinook Indian Nation.” 

Quinault leadership did not respond to multiple requests for comment. 

Managing the inheritance of generational trauma

Cementing ties to ancestral land that are upheld by U.S. law isn’t the only goal that federal recognition would help the Chinook achieve. The physical, sexual, and emotional abuse of Indigenous children who were taken from their families and forced to attend Federal Indian Boarding Schools from 1819 into the 1930s continues to affect Chinook communities in the present. Like so many others, Rachel Cushman, a Chinook councilwoman, comes from a family that was traumatized through multiple generations subjected to the boarding-school philosophy “kill the Indian, save the man.” 

“My grandma had a very hard life and [as a result] created a hard life for my mother,” Cushman said. “I love [my grandma] deeply, but the traumas that she experienced really impeded her ability to have a healthy lifestyle.”

Porter’s great-grandma, Ella Clark, was also taken from her home and sent to a boarding school, which separated multiple generations of children in her family from their parents. While she’s now a proud Chinookan mom to a 4-year-old Chinookan daughter who knows her ancestors, that cultural history of trauma is very real for Porter and her community. 

“For a long time, I was so afraid to have my own children because I was worried that my children, their children, and their children’s children would have to endure that pain too,” Porter said.  

Chairman Johnson said the long-term harmful impact of the boarding school experience, the threat of displacement from their own territory, and other collective cultural traumas can be seen in how members of his community experience houselessness, substance abuse, and other socioeconomic struggles. But what he finds most frustrating is how the nation lacks the means to deal with these challenges and support his people because the U.S. government hasn’t granted the Chinook federal recognition.

Without that recognition, the Chinook people don’t have access to Indian Health Services, which would positively impact end-of-life care and provide mental health services so that they don’t lose so many people to suicide. IHS provides health care for all 574 federally recognized Native nations. With suicide being the second leading cause of death for Indigenous youth, at over two times the rate of the national average, health care is pivotal to prevention. 

“My siblings and I lost our mom two days before her 60th birthday largely due to her lack of access to adequate health care,” Porter said. 

Additionally, federal recognition would mean the Indian Child Welfare Act would apply to the Chinook people so that Chinook children will be kept with kin or within their culture instead of placed in the child welfare system with non-Natives. 

According to Johnson, not having federal recognition means that the Chinook don’t have the same opportunities to look after the health, wellness, and well-being of their citizens that other nations enjoy. Having to witness how that affects the Chinook and being unable to help is painful, Johnson said. 

“We see our folks fall apart in front of us, and it is so frustrating as elected officials of a nation to have to just watch that happen in front of you,” Johnson said. “It’s just unbearable, honestly.”

Federal resources are critical to surviving modern disasters 

Being able to address historical harm and injustice isn’t the only reason the Chinookan people need access to federal resources. A global pandemic, degrading infrastructure, and the increasing scope of extreme weather and natural disasters stemming from climate change also threaten the Chinook, especially since they can’t rely on the kind of federal services available to federally recognized Native nations.

Despite being impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Chinook government still can’t access pandemic assistance funding like the recent multi-billion COVID relief package for federally recognized Native nations. This has consequences for Chinookan people besides pandemic-related health issues. For instance, other Native nations have used this funding to disaster-proof their housing, secure internet access, and improve education and public health outcomes. Meanwhile, the Chinook have been left without any federal resources to move their people out of areas impacted by wildfires, flood zones, or erosion by the ocean, or assist with housing and other disaster-recovery efforts. 

The fact remains that the Chinook are still required to provide a colonial government with proof from non-Native newspapers, anthropologists, and other sources to be deemed a legitimate Native nation. The history maintained by the Chinook Indian Nation itself still isn’t considered enough by the U.S. government, despite the fact that previous U.S. policies enforced assimilation in ways that actively extinguished Native people’s connections to their own heritage and history. 

“To have bureaucrats sitting in offices thousands of miles away making decisions about who we are and how we should be allowed to live, where’s the justice in that?” Porter said. “Chinook sovereignty is not something the U.S. should be able to honor or not whenever they feel like it. Chinook sovereignty has existed long before the U.S. existed, and it will never not exist.”

Porter believes that recognition isn’t a perfect solution because of the numerous layers of bureaucracy imposed upon tribes, but it still provides the legal framework for Chinook to finally hold the U.S. government accountable for the promises they’ve made to her people. For leaders like Johnson, what’s most important is getting the Chinook people the resources they need to heal, grow, and thrive.

“Our teaching says it’s a natural law, that it takes as long to fix a problem as it took to make it,” Johnson said. “We want to be able to count days toward healing for the community, and the only way that’s going to happen in a way that actually works is through federal acknowledgment.”

Luna Reyna is the Indigenous Affairs Reporter at Crosscut. Her work has identified, supported and promoted the voices of the systematically excluded in service of liberation and advancing justice. Luna...